Aboriginal Australians Send Their Pre-Teen Boys On a ‘Walkabout’. I Wish I Could Send My Son On One Too.

The rules of Thunderdome are easy: Two men enter, one man leaves. 

This is what it’s felt like living with my son for the past 18 months – like I’m locked in a cage fight with an adversary bent on bending me to his will or causing my destruction if I refuse to break. All this gibberish about boys being “easy to raise” is just that; unintelligible, meaningless talk. The only reason society considers boys easy to raise is because we generally let them go feral, permitting all kinds of heinous acts under the adage Boys will be boys! Meanwhile, everything around us gets broken – mother’s hearts not the least of them – and we convince ourselves that the all consuming flames of destruction are nothing more than a warm toasty fire. Our collective self-deception is more effective than opium in the water supply.

If it sounds like I’m being dramatic, I can assure you that I am not. My conversations with mothers of boys the same age as my son (11 – 12) have confirmed that regardless of race, geographic location, class or upbringing, there are disturbing traits that all of our sons share. I have no problem with the occasional curse word (who among us has not tried out an f-bomb for size for the benefit of our peers?), but by the time an 11-year-old boy is describing himself as a “p*ssy eater”, we strayed far off the path. And besides, Connor, at whose table are you dining on kitty kat? No one’s I’m sure. But you’ll pick a name of a girl out of a hat, spread your lies and ruin her reputation before she’s made it to 8th grade. How do I know? Personal experience. I loaned a pencil to a boy named Nii in middle school and before the term was out, he’d created a series of sexual trysts between us and told all his friends about them. I hope thunder fires you, Nii.

Of course, the shocking sexual talk has the effect of an earthquake. That’s what causes shock and horror. It’s the many mini fissures that disturb me the most. These are:
Unexplainable prolonged moodiness
Allergic reactions to accountability

Did I mention lying? This is the one my peers and I battle with the most, and the lies don’t even make sense. My son lies about brushing his teeth. My friend’s son lies about the amount of time he spends on his tablet. Another boy lies about food taken from the fridge . All of these things can be verified by a sniff of the breath or checking in on Family Link, yet when caught out again and again, these youths do not amend their ways! Do you know what it’s like to ask the same person to brush their same teeth every morning for a year and a half? I know we’re in a pandemic and no one sees your mouth behind the mask, but DUDE!

I left home for boarding school at 16, just when my brother turned 12. I have never lived with a boy my son’s age so I have no frame of reference for how to deal with this behavior. I can surmise based on anecdotal evidence that all of this is “negative” conduct is natural and society has structures in place to help boys navigate this difficult time in all of ours lives. Or at least it used to. My personal belief is that each of us needs a purpose in life, but boys in particular need a quest to begin on the path of attaining self-actualization. It’s why they would run away to become sailors 200 years ago and why they join gangs today: to have some sense of control. To exhibit individuality in a group setting. To identify perilous consequences which they must conquer. To fail – and perhaps badly – or succeed, but to know that either way they can always come home.

There are many cultures around the world that have invented structural rites of passage that signifies a boy’s transition from youth to man. However in modern (read: Western) society, we simply expect them to age into manhood, the same way we expect girls to morph from virtuous virgin to boudoir gymnast once a ring is put on her finger. Here in South Africa there is ulwaluko, a traditional circumcision and initiation transitioning a boy form childhood to adulthood. It’s known as “going to the mountain”. The boys spend an average of six weeks learning how to be courageous, disciplined and strong men in society. However, many initiates return home indoctrinated with toxic, patriarchal notions, refusing to perform tasks that only “women should carry out” like washing their own dishes or making up their own beds.

It is initiation season in SA at the moment. A national discussion is happening around its outcomes.

The concept of manhood in our modern context is inextricably liked to capitalism. We say a man’s value is based on his earning potential and demonstration of wealth, rather than his core qualities of resilience, kindness and persistence; part of the reason poor men – who despite their hard word – are so reviled by the culture. If hard work doesn’t pay off in Pound Sterling, then what is its redemptive quality?

In my casual reading about how other cultures deal with this transitional period between the tweenage years and full on adolescence, I stumbled on the Aboriginal practice of the ‘walkabout’. (If you know the name in its local dialect, I would love for you to share it in the comments.) Per Wikipedia:
Walkabout is a rite of passage in Australian Aboriginal society, during which males undergo a journey during adolescence, typically ages 10 to 16, and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months to make the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood.

It should be noted that the term itself is now used a pejorative to describe general tardiness, and my use of it in this article is not intended to disrespect.

In the years leading up to a boy’s walkabout, he’s taught how to identify herbs for healing, how to hunt, what plants are edible and how to source water in the desert. He will not be permitted to go on his quest until a conclave of elders has assessed his readiness. In addition to the guiding forces of the stars, he will have also been taught songs that serve as roadmaps providing clues on how to reach his destination and how to get home. And then he sets off on his own into the bush, his success, failure and fate totally in his hands. A boy has no one to rely on or blame but himself. In his isolation, he can reflect on the type of person he is and what kind of man will return home.

I deeply want something like this for my son. The follow up questions he asked lead me to believe he’d be interested in it as well. I can’t speak for any other boy, but this boy needs the benefit of useful isolation. By that I mean not just locked up in his room with his devices, immersed in the world of other YouTuber’s featherbrained thoughts, but time to form his own notions and philosophies. In the rare moments he actually speaks to me, he often astonishes with the kinds of questions he asks, the observations he makes, and the solutions he would provide to these problems. I wish there was a framework in which he could apply all of these things while simultaneously providing validation.

Do I think my son will be okay without a walkabout? Yes. We will make do with what tools we have, chipping, hammering and polishing away at the Stone I was given until the man we both know he can be emerges at the other end.